Literacy in a Waldorf School
Myth: Waldorf Schools Don’t Teach Reading and/or Don’t Value Books
Fact: Waldorf Schools teach literacy based on children’s natural developmental stages, so that they are taught as much as they are ready and able to learn, at the ideal age to be most receptive to what they’re learning.
Many parents and teachers seem to think that reading is de-emphasized in Waldorf schools in general, and in Roseway Waldorf in particular. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Waldorf approach to literacy is Rudolf’s Steiner’s research and observations into how human beings learn most naturally. We learn best when we match the degree of what we take in to our own personal and physiological development.
Taking it further, Steiner’s philosophy of literacy education is based on the evolution of language itself. As mankind developed language in certain organic stages, we learn language best in similar steps.
Receive the children in reverence; educate them in love; let them go forth in freedom.Rudolf Steiner
The Evolution of Language
As humankind began to interact, we needed to be able to communicate with one another. Sounds were assigned meanings. Soon spoken language developed. We could speak to one another.
Next, we needed to record what was being said in some way. Marks, lines, and squiggles were used to designate words, thoughts, and ideas. Think hieroglyphics or cuneiform, as well as cave art and similar drawings.
Naturally, if you have a written system of symbols used to communicate concepts, you need to be able to pass that system on so that others can use it, too. In other words: people need to learn to read what you have written.
Children master language in precisely this sequence. That’s why language is taught in this sequence in Waldorf schools.
From birth until a child’s seventh year, the focus is on the spoken word. We tell children stories of every kind, from lullabies to nursery rhymes, fairy tales to folk stories. Waldorf communities are encouraged to mirror the practice at home, so that storytelling and – more importantly – story hearing becomes a natural part of the child’s life. It’s very important that these stories are told as they were written, using the original language. There’s no need to simplify (or “dumb down”) the stories we tell our children. Teachers take care to tell stories this way, making sure to speak clearly and enunciate fluently – and we encourage parents to do so, too.
This helps children enormously later on, when they start learning to write and spell.
Language Lessons at Waldorf
Young children learn through movement and play. For this reason, we incorporate various forms of movement and play into every day we spend together in those formative years. A typical Waldorf school day includes circle time, replete with songs, verses, rhymes, and poems. Through each of these, language weaves its foundation and becomes a natural part of each learner’s life.
Circle time follows a sequence, and sequences are repeated every day over a period of two to three weeks. This means children learn the poetry, verses, and songs “by heart”. Most retain the memories for life. Incorporating the element of play into each lesson means that these memories are fond, fun highlights of learning, rather than the boring monotony so often associated with primary learning.
Modern brain research confirms what Rudolf Steiner asserted in the 1920s: repetition aids brain development, and is essential for learning. This is because repeating what we learn and experience – whatever it may be – creates and strengthens neural pathways in the brain.
At Waldorf, we believe that words are the foundations of spoken language – not sounds. We don’t spend hours singing the ABCs, or trying to hammer phonics into unwilling minds. We allow children to discover the beauty of language for themselves, via first-hand experience. We prepare their fertile minds to read and write by watering them liberally with the spoken word.
This is why so many people are impressed by how articulate Waldorf children are. They tend to have large vocabularies and notable memory recall, often being able to recite long passages by heart, with joy and inflection.
While we’re training the language centers of our learners’ minds, we’re training their bodies, too. Fine motor skills such as knitting and craft prepare small fingers for the dexterity needed to write well.
Even though reading is not taught formally in class one, the concept of letters and sounds is introduced. Letters are represented visually, in a highly imaginative way. Each new letter is linked to an element of the story being studied.
For instance, a teacher might tell a story of great daring, involving a knight who needs to climb a daunting mountain to get to the valley at the end of his quest. Children then draw mountains in the shape of an M, and the corresponding valley in the shape of the V. In this way, the concepts are linked in their minds. The concepts are no longer abstract and remote: it is learning in a way that engages a child’s imagination.
Once children have learned all of the letters in this way, they copy the teacher’s writing. Usually a teacher will have taught the children a verse, song, or poem that she then writes on the board. The class copies the poem into their “Main Lesson” books. Because they’re already familiar with the work, they start to recognize the words they’re writing.
It’s so important to note that these children are making these connections themselves. Their minds are ready to absorb the information, and it takes root naturally and organically.
In this way, the child develops a living relationship with each letter and the written word. It is not dry and abstract. Writing is taught in a way that engages the child’s imagination.
Just as reading is the final step in the natural evolution of language, it is the natural last step in basic literacy training in a Waldorf school. We typically see learners start to acquire the skill towards the end of class two or during the course of class three.
One very important note is that, just as children learn to crawl and walk at varying ages, so reading happens at a range of ages. The main ingredient for a successful reader is a fertile mind. With that in place, reading unfolds naturally, when the child is ready.
In the same way that a healthy child will learn to walk and talk without specific instruction, healthy children in the right environment can easily learn to read by themselves.
The main requirement for reading is that healthy environment. And that’s what Waldorf offers.
Those uninspired early readers and dry textbooks so popular in modern classrooms don’t find their way into a Waldorf school. Instead, children are nourished on a steady diet of rich literature from their earliest days at Waldorf.
Once they have mastered reading, they have the opportunity to read classic literature and biographies, which most do with obvious pleasure.
Reading Results Supported by Science
In recent decades, many of Rudolf Steiner’s theories on education have been proven accurate, and a lot of his ideas are becoming more mainstream. As a result of this opening up, it’s become possible to do comparative studies to assess the effectiveness of these theories of education and learning.
In the United States in 2007 and 2012, studies were conducted (Oberman 2007 (pdf); Larrison et al. 2012) which compare the results of literacy and mathematics education at certain Waldorf schools with the same subjects taught in more conventional schools.
Both studies delivered the same findings: Waldorf children in the early grades do not read as fluently as their mainstream school counterparts. But by the later grades (and we mean as early as class three or four) Waldorf students are at least as fluent readers as their peers. Usually more so.
A similar study in New Zealand reached the same results: when Waldorf students graduate, they read better than children graduating from conventional schools.